The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Keeping up with Adu – the Benfica life

Posted by steigs on January 2, 2008

For those of you who missed it, the Washington Post caught up with local boy Freddy Adu in a story published on Christmas Day.  And here I thought it was only the fringe elements on Bigsoccer that considered the kid to be the savior…

Freddy, it appears, is off to a decent start with Benfica, the traditional (if not current) leader in the Portuguese league.  He’s often the supersub off the bench, regularly scoring a goal or getting an assist in the late stages of a game, and able to learn from Rui Costa, the legendary (if aging) Portuguese attacking mid, a number 10 of the most classic type.

Fitrell wrote that after Adu’s third game-winning goal for the club the papers were filled with headlines like “The American Hero” and “Freddy Saves Us Again.” The next day Fitrell had 40 e-mails congratulating him on Adu’s success, “as if I had anything to do with it,” Fitrell wrote. Fitrell’s favorite post-game message came from a Communist Party member of parliament there, which read simply: “I love America.”

I was glad to see the story was by Jason La Canfora, who ordinarily handles the Redskins beat but who developed a friendship of some sort with the Adus during the early stages of Freddy-mania.  While I love the work of Steve Goff, it’s nice that a young reporter with a liking for soccer — displayed during World Cup blogging and in asides during his Redskins work — gets to indulge himself.  The more mainstream writers who know and enjoy the sport, the better for us in the long run.

This seems a good opportunity to retell the tale of my visit to Lisbon and trip to see Benfica play, which also involves cherry brandy, a bit of poetry, and a reminder of the glory days of Benfica.  It’s a little dated, being from 1999, and Portugal (if not Benfica) have had some international success since then.  But I think it’s still of interest.  Curious?  Read on after the jump!

Lisbon B August 1999

A warm and comfortable summer evening in Lisbon.  I am standing in front of the Estadio da Luz B the evocatively named AStadium of Light@ B and I=m studying a statute of an athletic man about to kick a ball.  Fallen empires specialize in statutes, concrete reminders of former greatness.  There is a grandeur, a romance, to empires of days gone by and Portugal is rich in such stuff, including soccer empires.

The statute is of one Eusebio, the ABlack Pearl,@ a superstar of 1960s soccer, a goal scoring rival of Pele.  The empire is Benfica, Portugal=s most popular team who play here at Estadio da Luz.  Eusebio was the signature hero of their best teams, which did battle throughout Europe.  Benfica was the original successor to the Real Madrid dynasty of the 1950s, winning the European Championship in 1961 and 1962 and challenging for additional championships for the rest of the decade.  (They lost the 1963 final to AC Milan in part because one of their best players was injured by a vicious tackle.)

Eusebio was also the key player for Portugal=s semi-finalist World Cup team of 1966, where he managed to score four times in one game, a 5-3 victory over North Korea, and led the tourney in goals with nine.  He led the Portuguese league in scoring for ten straight years, averaging about one goal a game, a phenomenal rate.  Late in his career, after a knee injury, Eusebio ended up in America, playing for Boston B a treat for the substantial Portuguese immigrant community of New England B and Las Vegas in the NASL. 

These days, Benfica is financially troubled, debt-laden to the point where the team has been reprimanded on occasion for failing to actually pay for players they buy.  They haven=t won the Portuguese league title since 1994.  Still, thousands of red-clad fans are at Estadio Da Luz this evening to root Athe Eagles@ on.  The supporters keep coming, hoping the team will soon get past this bad patch and return to winning the Portuguese league regularly again, even if the era of European championships wins seems done and gone.                           

Eusebio is a reminder of Portugal=s past glories in another way.  He was born in what is today Mozambique, then a portion of Portugal=s globe-spanning colonial empire.  While a contemporary version of Eusebio might well play for Benfica B although they probably wouldn=t be able to afford him B he wouldn=t be representing Portugal in World Cups.  The colonies are independent now.

The 1966 World Cup was Portugal=s international soccer highlight B a third place finish.  Portugal has often failed to qualify for the World Cup at all and only occasionally dent the European Championships.  Their teams have a reputation for flair, but not for winning.  There are hopes that this in the process of changing B Portugal had two stellar youth World Cup teams in the early 1990s, a Agolden generation@ of rising stars, led by Luis Figo and Rui Costa.  But the golden generation failed to make the 1998 World Cup and is running out of chances.  (They finally roused themselves to make a thrilling run to the Euro 2000 semis before flaming out at the 2002 World Cup, in part thanks to our upstart Americans, before a “last hurrah” home team run to the Euro 2004 final…where they blew it again.)


This is the first time I have gone abroad with an intent of catching a game.  It isn=t the sole reason I chose Portugal as my summer vacation but, Rough Guide in hand, I am going to track down some soccer while I was here.  But I’m also a tourist, with Lisbon to explore as well.

The city of Lisbon has a sleepy air to it.  Perhaps in European fashion many residents are off on their own extended August vacations.  Yet the languidness feels deeper to me, as if Lisbon had settled into a less-than-prosperous retirement.  The central district has a faded feel, of buildings once stylish and now simply maintained.  Portugal is reminiscent of Spain, I thought, as I wandered from the Rossio to the Praca de Comercio in the Baixa, the Alower town,@ but not as lively.  Like a ne=r do well sibling, perhaps.  The relationship between the Iberian neighbors is long and complicated B with Spain ruling Portugal at times B and modern Portugal was governed for decades by a Franco-like dictatorship, led by Antonio Salazar from 1932 to 1968. 

Lisbon is a wonderful strolling city, a place for meandering walks through historic neighborhoods.  There are three distinct such neighborhoods in the heart of Lisbon B the 18th century Baixa, the much older hillside of the Alfama, and the Barrio Alto (the Aupper town@) on the facing hillside opposite the Alfama.  Sidewalk cafes are frequent in the Baixa, busy with fellow tourists hiding from the sun under umbrellas and sipping drinks.  The streets here are in a neat grid-like pattern, the product of urban planning following the great earthquake of 1755.  Classically-influenced government buildings mingle with art deco commercial structures.  Some streets maintain a tradition of being devoted to a single trade, such as the goldsmiths on Rua do Ouro.

I turn up towards the Barrio Alto and pause for a pilgrimage stop at the A Brasileira café, long the haunt of writers and other misfits, paying my respects to the spirit of Fernando Pessoa.  A statue of the writer B hat, bow-tie, spectacles B stands out front of the café.  Pessoa was one of the early literary explorers of alienation, a Portuguese poet who mostly wrote in English after a childhood spent in South Africa.  He adopted an multitude of pseudonyms B and affected a different personality and style for each of what he called Aheteronyms.@  These characters had different backgrounds and biographies.  One was a naval engineer, another a doctor.  Some heteronyms were only revealed as being Pessoa after his death in 1935.  Inevitably, like Kafka, it was also only following his death that his reputation soared.  His ghost even turns up as a character in Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago=s Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

My favorite of Pessoa=s work is this poem Aby@ Alvaro de Campos, which evokes the joy of traveling as well as anything I=ve read:

AAh, the first minutes of cafes of new cities!

The early morning arrivals at docks or at stations

Full of a tranquil and luminous silence!

The first pedestrians on the streets of a just-reached city,

And the special sound of time=s passing when we travel…

The buses or streetcars or automobiles…


The novel look of streets in novel countries…

The peace they seem to offer for our sorrow,

The happy bustle they have for our sadness,

Their absence of monotony for our wearied heart!

The large, dependably right-angled squares,

The streets with rows of buildings that converge in the distance,

The cross streets with unexpected things of interest,

And in all of this, like something that floods without ever overflowing,

Motion, motion,

Swift-colored human thing that passes and remains…

The ports with their unmoving ships,

Intensely unmoving ships,

And small boats close by, waiting…@

After a drink in the café, I move on.  AMotion, motion,@ as the poet says.  The Barrio Alta is mostly about restaurants and nightclubs, some promising fado, the melancholic Portuguese folk music, a soundtrack for a lost empire.  The neighborhood is quiet in the afternoon, being a nighttime neighborhood, so I cut back across the Baixa to the Alfama, a maze of alleyways and stairs, topped by the Castelo de Sao Jorge. 

The Castelo is mostly useful for the panoramic view it offers of the city and the river.  The Alfama is perfect for aimless wandering and poking about.  In fact, my guidebook warns A…it would be impossible (as well as futile) to try and follow any set route.@  I admire the azulejos, decorative glazed tiles that frequently adorn buildings in the Alfama.  I eventually come across a hole-in-the wall bar.  It is barely the size of a suburban garage.  Inside, a dozen people of varying ages are gathered around a single television.  I see that they are watching a game involving Lisbon=s other team, Sporting, and take a seat to watch, ordering a beer.  It makes a nice break from the afternoon sun.

At half-time, a wizened elder gets curious about me B in a friendly way B and we do our best, given the language barrier, to establish who I am and what I am doing in Lisbon.  He proves to have a cousin in America and I am treated to a long story about the cousin of which I can make out little beyond the fact that he settled in New Jersey and is prospering.  The result, I gather, is that the old boy is pro-American B or perhaps just that the Portuguese are good hosts B and I am given another beer on the house.  Or maybe they are just cheerful because Sporting, one of Portugal=s Abig three@ teams, is winning easily.

Lisbon was once one of the world=s great seaports and the river Tagus is at the foot of the Baixa.  Seafood, especially cod, features heavily on the restaurant menus.  After the game, I take a trolley along the river to visit the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos in nearby Belem, one of the reminders that there was one shining moment B a couple of bold generations B when Portugal took on the world.  Vasco de Gama sailing around Africa to India.  Colonies settled in Africa, in India, in China.  Immense Brazil, a colony too.  A vast sea-bourne empire, won by a handful of brave and violent men.


The street car ride revives the feeling I have of being back in the 1930s but the Mosteiro, originally built as a monastery, ends that sense B it=s an immense complex from the 16th century heyday of Portugal.  It is a mammoth Gothic church with an impressive cloister, a survivor from centuries past.  The guidebook advises me to look for the rounded forms, supposedly inspired by the sea.  I am more in awe of the sheer size and scale of the place.  This says empire in a way that the Baixa or Alfama do not.  Henry the Navigator graces the arch of the entrance, a reminder of how they got that empire.

It=s getting late in the afternoon, game time drawing near.  I return to the center of Lisbon, the square known as the Rossio.  All around are African street vendors, other reminders of the empire, pitching tourist knick-knacks or drinks.  I want to sample ginginha, a type of potent cherry brandy that was supposedly a favorite of visiting sailors.  I find myself in a storefront kiosk, of the sort found on Bourbon Street, in a long line of customers.  I=m given a shot, a blast of cherry with a strong kick.  Damn, I think, that=s good stuff.  So I get in line again for one more shot and then buy a bottle to give my brother back home.  (It later proves a big hit.)  Off to the game, after a quick stop at the hotel to drop off the bottle.

After admiring the Eusebio statue, I buy a cheap ticket and make my way into the Estadio da Luz.  It is a vast place, with a capacity to rival our college football palaces.  In the soft early evening it is perhaps half full, a turnout of about 30,000, the crowd thicker along the sides and behind the far goal.  Me, I=m behind one goal, but not the one occupied by the Benfica ultras.  It is a simple stadium B I can=t even find a scoreboard.  The concession stand is primitive, offering little more than sodas.  The mood is mellow, like the evening.  It is only the second game of the season, too early for nerves or stress.

The rival tonight is Salguerios, who are effectively the third team of Portugal=s second city, Porto, a couple of hundred miles to the north.  Salguerios are just happy to be in the top division and have no designs on winning the league.  This is good, since the Abig three@ of Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto have won almost every single Portuguese league title since World War II.

The game proves to be the expected mismatch.  Benfica attack from the get-go, shredding the Salgueriros defense time and again.  Their passes are crisp, the one-touch moves exhilarating.  Now this is fun soccer!  The Portuguese seem to have that Latin flair B sharing more than just language with the Brazilians.

Benfica, however, can=t seem to score.  Time and again the brilliant passes find their way to a forward in the box…and the shot goes awry or straight to the Salgueiros goalie.  I am lucky in that it is all happening in the goal in front of me.  My section is relatively unpopulated, a few families, a few stray solitary older men, but we are getting a prime show.  Still, the longer it goes on without a goal the more tremors of worry affect the crowd.


At half-time the game is scoreless, the fans restless.  There are clots of men smoking and talking in the stands, often with dramatic hand gestures.  I attempt a comment or two but I have no luck finding English speakers.  So I offer a couple of hand gestures of my own, before getting a soda and returning to my seat.

The second half kicks off with more of the same, except now Benfica is attacking the far goal, directly in front of their ultras.  I squint off into the twilight to follow the action.  Ten minutes in, the goal finally comes, forward Nuno Gomes manages to get the ball in the net.  Mass sigh, mass relaxation.

Alas for the fans, the same relaxation seems to affect Benfica.  After owning the first two-thirds of the game they seem to slow down after the goal.  Salgueriros, probably shocked to only be down by one goal after seeing so little of the ball, perk up.  They begin to push forward now and then, even forcing a few saves out of the Benfica goalie down in front of me.  As a neutral, this is making things interesting.  My fellow fans, however, could clearly do without such tension.  They would rather see a second Benfica goal to solidify the victory.

The lights are on by the end of the game.  The second goal never comes for Benfica, for all their nifty passing.  But Salgueriros never score either.  A 1-0 game in the end, and a rather exciting one at that.  A win for Benfica.  Perhaps they are turning the corner.  On the other hand, I conclude on the way out, pausing to pay respects to Eusebio, that in his day they would have managed another goal B or three.



2 Responses to “Keeping up with Adu – the Benfica life”

  1. ceeelcee said

    I was lucky enough to watch a Brazil/Portugal friendly on TV with a bunch of Brasilians a few months before World Cup 2002. They take this colonial deal a lot more seriously than the US does with Britain.

    Loved my trip to Lisbon, though. Great place that most folks wouldn’t think of visiting. Don;t miss out on the chance to golf in the Algarve.

  2. Three Game Winning Goals is definitely super-sub territory, especially this early in the pro season. That’s Ole Gunnar kind of shit.

    Freddy hasn’t impressed me that much when I’ve seen him, but he’s always been 4 years younger than everyone else on the field.

    If he’s contributing to Benfica (and yeah, 3 game winning goals counts as contributing) more power to him. I’d like him to live up to half his hype. Between him and the guys who got no hype (Feilhaber! Bradley! ETC!) That said, Freddy can’t possibly play striker for the US, where they are the most thin. He’s just too tiny. At it is, he’s a super-sub for Benfica, in that questionable league.

    If I were a wagering man, I’d bet that Paulo Maldini (the finest pure marking back to ever play the game and pushing 40) could mark up Freddy.

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